Irene Imfeld (b. 1947) grew up in Middletown, Ohio, now known as the “Hillbilly Elegy” town. In 1957 the local mills were booming and Middletown received an “All American City” award. Many people came from eastern Kentucky for work. There were more churches per capita than anywhere in the country. It was safe and clean; she walked to school and played in the woods.
Irene’s grandparents were immigrants from middle Europe. They were shopkeepers, office and mill workers, and housewives. Both sides of her large family were highly functional; everyone did their part and little ever changed. Growing up in small schools in a small town left her wanting something different but not knowing how to move on. When a teacher talked Irene’s parents into sending her to college, they picked a small local school, Mount St. Joseph, because it offered a partial scholarship. Realizing her family had no expectations, Irene chose to major in what interested her: art. She studied black and white photography for two years, weaving for one semester, and the other usual courses. After receiving a BA, and still searching, she went to San Francisco in 1970.
In 1973, Irene began studying at Pacific Basic School of Textile Arts, and at Fiberworks. Both of these Berkeley workshops ran from about 1972-1985. She was active in their programs and had textile work shown throughout northern California. During this time she worked at graphics businesses in San Francisco; in 1979 she went out on her own as a freelance graphic designer. She specialized in the design and production of books, working for large and small publishers until the early 2000s.
During the 1970s and 1980s she did street photography and took her camera to California’s scenic places, but did not really find her voice there. In the early 1990s she saw that digital photography was coming and began to learn about Photoshop and digital printing. She began making Polaroid transfer prints from film transparencies, then reproducing them digitally.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, she attended numerous workshops in photography, handmade books, and other arts. She took her work to photo reviews for criticism (FotoFest, Photolucida, etc.). As soon as archival inks appeared in 2003 she bought a large-format printer and set up her Oakland studio, still making traditional landscape images. Her prints were exhibited, mostly in California; she assisted artist Susannah Hays with academic exhibits and teaching; she went on an art-exchange trip to Japan; and joined the Bay Area Photographers Collective. At BAPC she met Henry Bowles and together they opened PHOTO, a regional gallery in Oakland in 2010.
PHOTO lasted five years. During that time, surrounded by photography and artwork at nearby galleries, Irene found a new course by using imagery from her archives in an abstract way. She made tonal alterations, changed orientation, etc., to transform straightforward photographs into abstract studies. She has continued to work in that way as the compositions have become more complex.
Irene has completed many bodies of work and presented several as handmade books. In the 2010s she received two funded residencies, self-published a monograph, and exhibited. Her image was chosen by William Wegman as Grand Prize Winner in the 2014 Fauna competition in San Francisco. Her work was given solo exhibitions at the Peninsula Art Museum, the Bolinas Museum, and the Fresno Art Museum, all in California. The Vacant Nests series was winner of the portfolio competition at Soho Photo Gallery, New York, with a solo exhibit in 2016. She was an active member of SFMOMA’s Foto Forum group (now defunct) and a board member of PhotoAlliance (2015-18).